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  • Luke Benedictus

Court Orders

Tennis coaches often have notoriously tricky relationships with their charges. Patrick Mouratoglou explains why. By Luke Benedictus.

Tennis coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Photography courtesy of Zenith Watches.

“Do you know what the average duration of the coach/player relationship is?” asks Patrick Mouratoglou, the legendary tennis coach. We’re sitting in the full glare of the sun in a rooftop restaurant at the Australian Open and Mouratoglou, a suave 53-year-old Frenchman with greying stubble, is trying to unpack why the alliance between a tennis player and their coach is often so complex. Responding to my blank stare, he obligingly answers his own question. “On the WTA,” Mouratoglou says of the Women’s Tennis Association worldwide tour, “the average duration of the coach/player relationship is six months.”


You certainly don’t have to look far to find countless examples of top players who switch up their coaches with startling haste. Take Naomi Osaka, who had four different coaches in 2019 alone, or Emma Raducanu, the surprise 2021 US Open champion, who’s swapped coaches five times since her grand slam triumph. For professional tennis coaches, it seems, job security is rarely part of the deal.  


How, then, can we explain this high turnover? Mouratoglou, who has mentored a range of top players including 10 years of dazzling success with Serena Williams, explains that the role of the coach in tennis is very different from in most other sports due to its unusual dynamic. “In tennis, the player is paying the coach, so technically the player is the boss,” he says. “But in order to work well, the coach must have some power, otherwise they’re not listened to.”


That strange power balance gives the relationship a potentially shaky foundation right from the start. But it’s then compounded by a player’s success being measured very conspicuously by what happens on court. “There is a lot of pressure on the players — they need to win,” Mouratoglou says. “And when they start to lose some matches, they often start to doubt their coach because their job is to help them to win.”


The Frenchman is ever dapper off the court. Photography courtesy of Zenith Watches.

Consequently, Mouratoglou describes the player/coach relationship as being “crazy intense”, a reality that’s heightened by the fact that the pair can easily spend up to 40 hours a week together throughout the year. To withstand all that, the partnership must be glued by mutual trust and respect. “The relationship is a rollercoaster and that’s why it has to be so strong,” Mouratoglou says. “Otherwise when you get into the rollercoaster, it breaks very fast. And when it breaks, it’s always bad for the player.”


Yet when the match-up is right, it can have a transformative effect. Mouratoglou points to how Ivan Lendl helped Andy Murray make the career breakthrough of winning his first two slam titles, or how Magnus Norman propelled Stan Wawrinka to three grand slams.


Mouratoglou, of course, knows first-hand what the alchemy of a good relationship looks like. When he started coaching Williams, she’d just suffered her first-ever opening-round defeat in the main draw of a grand slam tournament, in the 2012 French Open. Under his guidance, she proceeded to win three Wimbledons, three US Opens, two French Opens and two Australian Opens, as well as an Olympic gold medal. Nor is she the only example of his success as a coach. Mouratoglou has helped launch a string of top careers by scouting talents including Holger Rune, Coco Gauff, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Marco Bagdhatis.


He believes the basis of his success is good communication. “The job of a tennis coach is to find a way to be listened to,” he says. “To unleash a player’s potential, you have to understand the person and find the right way to adapt and talk to that individual so they really hear you. For a coach that has to be the number-one quality.”


A big part of the coach’s role is therefore psychological in nature, and strong interpersonal skills are vital. On meeting Mouratoglou you’d assume these skills come naturally to him — in person, he’s charming and urbane, with that special ability to put you instantly at ease. Yet he explains that such an assumption is way off the mark. Growing up in Paris, Mouratoglou says, he had “a lot of problems” and was socially inept as a teenager. “I was unable to connect with people,” he says. “My level of shyness was unreal. I was very much alone, I had health problems and I was terrible at school.”


The Zenith Defy 21 Patrick Mouratoglou Edition, $28,200, features his favourite colour: blue. Photography courtesy of Zenith Watches.

Desperate to find a solution, Mouratoglou started to become an expert observer. He studied the behaviour of his classmates, scrutinising their interactions to try to become more socially confident. “I needed to do that to survive,” he says. “And I do think it helped me really understand people more deeply, because I looked and listened to people for hours and hours every day.”


Mouratoglou’s DIY self-development course has clearly paid off: a measure of his success is that he can now charge US$7,500 ($AU11,530) for a single tennis lesson. He has already opened multiple tennis academies all over the world, with the next one due to open in Victoria next year. But his ambitions as a professional tennis coach are certainly not over yet. Asked whom he’d choose if he could coach any player on the circuit, Mouratoglou fires back an answer with the speed of a Novak Djokovic return. “Nick Kyrgios. Mainly because I think coaching him would be the biggest challenge in the history of our sport.”

 

Patrick Mouratoglou is a Friend of the Brand for Zenith Watches.


This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eleventh edition, Page 26 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Court Orders”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  

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